Valley Voices

Should parents intervene when a teacher is unfair?

We just ended the academic year, and there are probably plenty of students who have gotten back their final papers, only to find that that great paper they believed they’d wrote didn’t get such a good grade.

But, what if a student wrote a great paper and the professor dropped her paper from an A to an F, because she forgot to include something small, like page numbers, or a title. If you are saying to yourself, “No professor would do that,” you’d be wrong. Something like that is what happened to my daughter at Fresno City College last fall, and would set in motion a five-month process of filing grievances.

Many students are unaware that Fresno City College has a standard protocol for filing grievances against professors, for anything from an unjust grade to a miscomputed grade. The process starts with a petition to the instructor himself, and, if necessary, works its way up the administrative ladder, all the way to the president of the school.

My daughter, a junior at Bullard High School, took Introduction to Philosophy as part of City College’s high school enrichment program. She received A’s on her midterm, homework assignments and even her final exam. For two months, I saw her work diligently on her final paper that compared Buddhism and Platonism.

The professor, Robert Boyd, had given her a long list of technical “do’s” and “don’ts” for writing the paper and she believed she had checked off each and every one. She turned the paper in, and a couple of weeks later, when she got it back, she saw from the grading rubric that she’d gotten 0 out of 40 points for the entire argument of the paper, which was written in three sections. The reason: she had failed to write headings, as in Section 1, Section 2, and Section 3.

I taught college (ironically, mostly philosophy) for 23 years, and in all that time, I’d never seen such harsh grading. It might be reasonable for a professor to dock a student a few points for such a minor infraction, but this?

She made an appointment with Boyd, and I drove her there. During the course of her conversation with him, she wanted to know two things:

▪ “How can failing to write “Section 1,” “Section 2,” “Section 3,” count for everything, and the writing of the section themselves count for nothing?”

▪ “Why didn’t you let us know the consequences would be so severe for not including simple section headings?”

His answer was, “I told you that you had to include section headings. You should have followed directions.” And before she left, he said, “Someday you’ll thank me for this,” and “I hope to see you in one of my other classes.”

I went to talk to him myself. He said if she’d included those section headings, she would have received an A.

“It was an excellent paper,” he said, and showed me the door.

Should students live in paranoia that a small error can scuttle all their hard work? Should professors have the privilege to be unreasonable, as dissociated from common sense and fair-mindedness as they like?

Once an instructor refuses to change a grade, the City College grievance process requires an appeal to the divisional associate dean, then the dean of instruction. Next would be the academic standards committee, and finally the president of the school.

My daughter wrote a persuasive argument for her position and got the grievance going. She believed that one of these parties would see the soundness of her argument, and decide to alter her grade. One month passed, then two. So few students filed grievances, I discovered, that the administrative assistants sometimes didn’t know how to route the paperwork.

Finally, after five months, we’d reached the end of the line with the interim president, Cheryl Sullivan. Like the others, she stood by Boyd.

My daughter had gotten straight A’s through high school and through city college. This grade would end her chance for summa cum laude at Bullard, the highest-level valedictorian, something she’d worked hard to attain.

The integrity of the academy is premised upon fair-mindedness and reasonable discourse. Students should feel that college is a place (unlike many places) where power is not abused, and those in authority work on the students’ behalf.

My daughter’s faith in all these hallmarks of the academy was seriously diminished. In her words:

▪ “The system doesn’t work in favor of justice.”

▪  “Professors can be completely irrational without any consequence.”

▪ “Protecting professors trumps the hard work of students.”

▪  “When following the smallest instruction is more important than creative thought and a strong argument, something is wrong.”

A week or so after her meeting in Boyd’s office, she told me, “When he did that to me, I felt intellectually raped, Dad. He had the power to degrade me is all, and that was all that he needed.”

Aris Janigian of Fresno is author of four novels, most recently, “Waiting for Lipchitz at Chateau Marmont” (Rare Bird Books.) He is also co-author along with April Greiman of “Something from Nothing,” a book on the philosophy of graphic design. A Ph.D. in psychology, from 1993 to 2005 he was senior professor of humanities at Southern California Institute of Architecture.